Bel Air fired up about station

Dedication today for new facility for volunteer firefighters

`A dream come true'

May 06, 2001|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

A $5 million, state-of-the-art fire station will be dedicated in Bel Air today with a focus on the future and a warm nod to a century-old past.

Officials will dedicate the station at 109 S. Hickory Ave., the location where in 1890 the town's residents paid 10 cents each to create the Bel Air Fire and Salvage Company.

A one-ton brass bell that rallied volunteers to barn and house fires beginning in 1903 has been refurbished and placed in front of the new firehouse. Crafted in a Baltimore foundry, the bell bears the original name of the volunteer group, but the bell's clapper now strikes courtesy of electromagnetic power.

The 3 p.m. dedication will be short on formality and long on tradition, said Dorothy Arnold, president of the fire company.

"We won't be having too many speeches," Arnold said. "The new station is a dream come true. Former members of the company will be flying in from as far away as Texas and Nevada to attend."

A 1939 Mack firetruck will be pushed into the firehouse, part of a fire-service tradition.

The 31,000-square-foot brick house has nine gleaming bays where ambulances and pump, ladder and tower trucks stand ready for calls. The two-story building has all the comforts of home - which it sometimes becomes for weary volunteers.

Sleeping quarters and a large classroom/meeting room are on the second floor. Volunteers who want to jump on the Internet can use the computer room, and most members take advantage of a physical activity area featuring weights and exercise machines.

Volunteers can whip up meals in the firehouse kitchen, do laundry or retire to an entertainment room with a large-screen television set and reclining chairs.

A small museum in the foyer features a 1931 fire-call log, with notations in near-perfect penmanship, and an 1840-vintage wooden water main from beneath the streets of Detroit.

For Millard Purcell, the dean of local fire service, today's dedication will mark a departure from his first volunteer days in 1939. Purcell lives a block away from the firehouse and still responds to calls.

"I broke my foot, and I can't get it into a boot yet," said Purcell, 85. "But I go and make the coffee and pull the doors down after the trucks leave the house."

When he started, fire volunteers responded mostly to barn and some house fires. Barns where farmers stored hay were tinderboxes, and combustion formed under hay stacks "like a bee's nest, just waiting for some air to kick it up," Purcell said.

In those days, Purcell said, volunteers responded to 100 calls a year. Last year, the station responded to more than 5,500 calls in Bel Air, the rapidly growing Harford County seat, and surrounding communities, including Abingdon and Forest Hill.

Today's volunteers come from all walks of life - nurses and construction workers, computer technicians and business owners. Firefighters and medics must undergo training and testing before they are certified.

When the Bel Air fire company was formed, volunteers did not have much equipment. There was a hand-drawn hose reel and a ladder truck. In those days, firefighters slapped wet handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths to protect them from smoke.

The former station was a converted county highway garage that saw several renovations and additions, Arnold said.

Maintenance and training areas and sleeping quarters were deficient, she said. "It was like a maze, places on different levels in what was a converted garage from the 1940s."

In 1996, a building committee was formed; two years later, a design was approved.

The bell, made at McShane Bell Foundry Co., was placed atop the courthouse, the highest point for the bell to call out firehouse hands.

Modern fire communications made the bell obsolete and it sat atop the courthouse until 1999 - 32 years after Payson Getz, a member of the station's board of directors, began negotiations to return the bell to the firehouse. The bell was reworked and cleaned at McShane's, now in Glen Burnie, and returned to Bel Air and to the front of the station.

"The bell reaches across two centuries," said Getz, laughing at the notion that his fight to recover the bell seemed almost as long. "It is symbolic of the old days, and it stands as a measure of quality for this new millennium."

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